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General Engineering Principles and Systems Theory

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Information Systems
Wordcount: 2926 words Published: 2nd Jan 2018

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Engineering and Socio-technical Philosophies

Developing information systems is a creative effort which requires insight and judgement skills. There are two common approaches which are ‘Engineering’ and ‘Socio-technical’ used in systems development. Each of these approaches is explained below and a summary of the comparison is given afterwards.

Engineering has been significant in creating a fundamental approach for development of information systems and with a driving concern of developing a complex technical system. Inefficiencies in systems development process often results into problematic technical systems, attempts to improve on the situation have drawn majorly on general engineering principles and systems theory. Systems engineering, which emphasizes studying total systems without their isolated components and systems analysis are rooted in the systems theory, they proceed to achieve a task systematically and produce the best system (Avgerou & Cornford 1993). They are said to be corresponding to the traditional life cycle which has often been criticized not to be appropriate when dealing with unclear requirements but systems analysis has developed to lay more emphasis on efforts for examining the problem area and agreeing on requirements for a satisfactory system as opposed to an optimal solution (ibid).

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The engineering approach has grown stronger over time taking the form of different specialized disciplines, the best known to be software engineering. The aim of software engineering is to change semi-structured development practices to a systematic process which is effective, controllable and able to improve software quality. Despite its significance, applicability to IS development has been limited because a fully formal process of development as it depicts has been seen by most to be impractical or undesirable for IS development. It has been said to be impractical because of lack of formal theories to describe organisational behaviour and ‘formal models to capture the richness of the application domains’ (Avgerou & Cornford 1993:146). Several efforts have been made to include methods which support human creativity and user participation, some of these are use of DFDs and Prototyping. Overall, though software engineering has responded to the requirements of human aspect of systems development, ‘its perspective is still that of the efficient development of a technical product’ (Avgerou & Cornford 1993:147). Some other forms of the engineering approach which are aimed at improving certain aspects of system development are Knowledge engineering and Human-computer interaction…their approach is still that of engineering a technical system (Avgerou & Cornford 1993).

Socio-technical, as another approach to system development, has been defined by Coakes (2002:5) as ‘ … [exploring] the relationships and interrelationships between the social and technical parts of any system’ and is controlled by social change and human communication theories (Avgerou & Cornford 1993). It sees IS development process as an intervention to improve communication between people and how tasks are carried out in an organisation. As opposed to Engineering, IS is seen as involving people and not isolated technical constructs (Tatnall 2003; Avgerou & Cornford 1993). Its goal is to develop a system with which people can carry out their tasks effectively and achieve satisfaction and personal development (Avgerou & Cornford 1993). Laudon and Laudon (2006:28) mention that:

In a socio-technical perspective, the performance of a system is optimized when both the technology and the organisation mutually adjust to one another until a satisfactory fit is obtained.

The socio-technical approach in IS development expresses a combination of practical, ethical and theoretical concerns. The main practical concern being that IT-based systems often fail to bring the required benefits even though they are well designed due to the fact that ‘the social dynamics of [an] organisation … may override the intended performance of the technical system’ (Avgerou & Cornford 1993: 151). This approach seeks to address issues such as resistance to change towards a new IS in organisations by focusing on the human requirements and social dynamics all through the process of development. The ethical concern is of the notion that workers should also gain from the benefits the new technology provides in their workplace in order to promote work environment that is satisfactory (Avgerou & Cornford 1993; Coakes 2003).

Some of the most widely known demonstrations of this approach are Participation and Job design. It is suggested that not only should users be the source of requirements specification but also deeply involved in the process of development and ‘achieving effective participation has proved a non- trivial matter in practice…’ (Avgerou & Cornford 1993:154). Land and Hirschheim (1983:155) identify different categories of users who might be affected by a new system directly or indirectly and also differentiate between two participation types which are ‘participation in decision making about the project’ and ‘participation in the actual analysis and design’. The first could be consultative only while the second might be consultative, representative or consensus (ibid.). As mentioned earlier, there are difficulties to having user participation (Cavaye 1995) but should only serve as obstacles to overcome and not arguments in opposition to wider involvement in IS development (Avgerou & Cornford 1993). Job design, another form of this approach, ‘leads the development process towards restructuring the work environment where a new information system would be used and aimed at providing satisfactory work conditions for the employees’ (Avgerou & Cornford 1993). Mumford and Weir (1979) contribute to this aspect by introducing the ETHICS methodology.

Having discussed each of these, a summary of the comparison is drawn (figure 1.0). It is necessary to point out the implications of these approaches on the whole process of IS development as they are used as a basis for systems development. Engineering as a hard systems approach, has dominated in computer systems development and results into a system that is technically perfect but faced with resistance from the users and could be ignored eventually (Platt & Warwick 1995). This is due to certain assumptions this approach makes (Curtis & Graham 2008) such as:

  • Engineering perspective applies in all case and solutions should be mathematically/logically based.
  • Attention to the social or organisational aspects of the system not essential.
  • Emphasis on linear problem solving.

An example is the case of Wessex Area Health (Clarke & Lehaney 2000).

On the otherhand, the socio-technical approach helps to consider both the social and technical aspects of a system (Laudon & Laudon 2006), arguing that ‘the social and technical systems…cannot be designed independently of each other’ (Curtis & Graham 2005:581) so with its emphasis on user participation, user acceptance can be achieved thereby resulting into a success (Avison & Fitzgerald 2003; Coakes 2003), for example, as proved by the case of Bill payment system (Fisher 2003), the failure and later success of London Ambulance service (Clarke & Lehaney 2000; Grant et al 2010). Avison and Fitzgerald (1995) also claim that participation might result in resentment from either analysts or users.

Information Systems Development Methodology

It is defined as ‘a collection of procedures, tools, and documentation aids which will help the systems developers in their efforts to implement a new information system’ (Avison & Fitzgerald 2003:20). There are many methodologies, some of which are ETHICS, SSM, DSDM and they differ from one another mostly in terms of objectives. The Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) will be considered in this essay.

Philosophical root

SSM was introduced by Peter CheckLand with the contributions of other researchers in Lancaster University. They started an action research programme by using hard systems engineering as a framework in unsuitable circumstances whereby problems were not clearly defined but this attempt failed so SSM was introduced as an alternative (Checkland & Scholes 1990). The failure led to the rethink of the rudiments of systems thinking (ibid.) and a deep analysis of the basic assumptions behind this and systems development (Fitzgerald et al 2002). It was put forward that ‘systems thinking takes seriously the idea of a whole entity which may exhibit properties as a single whole (‘emergent properties’)’ and there are two complementary traditions within it namely the ‘hard’ tradition which takes the world as systemic and the ‘soft’ tradition that ‘creates the process of enquiry as a system’ (Checkland & Scholes 1990:25). Based on this, Checkland and Scholes (1990:25) refer to SSM as:

a systemic process of enquiry which also happens to make use of systems model. It thus subsumes the hard approach, which is a special case of it, one arising when there is local agreement on some system to be engineered.

They also claim that to have a better understanding of this, the word ‘holon’ should be used surrendering the word ‘system’ to everyday language and avoiding its use as a technical term. SSM uses a specific type of holon which they referred to as Human activity system(HAS), a set of activities that are connected in order to make a purposeful whole, created to meet the core system image requirement(ibid.). The HAS recognizes the importance of people in organisations due to the fact that it is necessary to include people in order to understand the real world (Avison & Fitzgerald 2003). Therefore, this methodology is regarded as a soft systems approach which Avison and Fitzgerald (2003) claim that is the most appropriate for understanding difficult problem situations such as those in organisations. SSM really focuses on looking into the organisational issues and ill-structured problems and then suggestion of solutions which may or may not be computer-based (Skidmore & Eva 2004).


As mentioned earlier, SSM is capable of examining and understanding the complex problem situations of an organisation, for example, its use in Shell and an Acute hospital (Checkland & poulter 2006) using a range of techniques as shown in the seven-stage model(Fig 1.1.0 and fig 1.1.1), this makes it suitable to examine the existing issues in AIC limited, a property management company in Nigeria. Though, the methodology does not explain methods for implementing suggested solutions especially those involving a computerised system but it is suggested that it could be used as a front end in SD process then proceed to use a more technical approach which emphasizes design, development and implementation (Avison & Fitzgerald 2003; Platt & Warwick 1995). Based on this limitation, some others raised the idea of linking SSM to existing structured methodologies and came up with suggestions (Stowel 1985; Prior 1990; Sawyer 1991; Gregory & Merali 1992; Miles 1992; Savage & Minger 1993), further concerns raised are that should it take the form of grafting SSM to SSD methods or embedding SSD methods in SSM (Miles 1988)? Miles (1988) argues that the grafting method could cause the benefits of the SSM to be lost for instance, SSM obviously supports user involvement from the onset (Mingers 1995).

Obviously, SSM has its notable advantages which makes it suitable for the case of AIC but definitely not without its weaknesses. Researches on the use of SSM in practice has been conducted (Mingers & Taylor 1992; Brocklesby 1995), some findings in these and the literature generally are as follows:


  • SSM helps to structure complex problem situations in an organized manner with the aid of specific techniques which makes it a thorough tool to use in cluttered problems (Platt & Warwick 1995; Mingers & Taylor 1992).
  • The entire cycle of SSM is based on learning and supports user involvement (Mingers 1995).
  • Its approach is holistic by focusing on wholes rather than reductionist (Brocklesby 1995; Camarinha-Matos & Afsarmanesh 2008; Mingers & Taylor 1992).
  • It guides the user to look for a solution which is more than technical (Skidmore & Eva 2004).


  • The processes involved in SSM does not recommend a method of encouraging broad participation especially when it extends towards taking action though it recognizes participation (Jackson 2003; Khosrow-Pour 2009).
  • SSM does not include methods for designing and implementing solution (Avison &Fitzgerald 2003; Mingers 1995).
  • The actual way of deriving information and data models from the activities is considered as ‘ad hoc’ due to lack of systematic means of determining information needed(Mingers 1995).
  • SSM only works well with few people involved (Bell & Morse 2003), though this favours the case of AIC but it could be time-consuming (Mingers & Taylor 1992; Keenan & Bustard 2009; Sutherland & Morieux 1991) and demands high level of commitment which is usually not easy to achieve (Brocklesby 1995).

The Organisation (AIC)

AIC is a well recognized company specializing in management of properties. It has 3 branches located in Nigeria, one of them serves as the head office and each of the branches has an operations manager and the owner is the Managing Director of the company. Each branch has 8 to 10 Property agents and 1 or 2 accountants working under the supervision of the operations manager. The property agents act as an intermediary between property owners and seekers so they are responsible for allocating owner’s properties to seekers and management generally. Data about properties, owners and seekers are presently kept on paper files and each branch has one or two PCs.

This business area is fast growing and the company wants to boost their efficiency in customer service delivery. The Managing Director of the company also felt the need for expansion. Some employees think there is need to improve on information handling especially due to the dissatisfaction of some customers (owners) with the mode of operation while some are less concerned and just wish for an increase in salaries. The MD has given his full support for a relevant and quick solution to be implemented in less than a year. Therefore, as an IS analyst, the situation will be further expressed and analysed using different modelling techniques suggested by Heeks and Morgan (2010a) and Heeks and Morgan (2010b).

Problem/opportunity: The problem is the ineffective means of keeping records while the opportunity is the need for expansion.

Stakeholder analysis

Clients: Operations managers, Property owners and Property seekers

Actors: Property agents, Accountants

Sponsor: Managing director

Owner: Branches, Operations managers

Champion: Managing director, Operations managers, Property agents

Others: IS analyst

Problem Statement: An ineffective means of information handling due to paper-based approach.

Project Rationale: To support the business expansion and remove all hindrances.


Environmental Prediction: The system is likely to last long because there are more supporters and expand its coverage if successful.

Initial Statement: A system that eliminates the identified possible hindrance to the intended business expansion and supports the company desire to improve service delivery.

CATWOE Checklist

Root Definition:

A system owned by the Managing Director and used by Operations Managers and Property Agents, which maintains proper record that helps in finding available properties for property seekers. The system to function under the financial constraints of the company and achievable in less than a year to assist the planned business expansion.

Project Assessment


Risk Assessment: This project, being a small one, is not prone to so many risks but a very obvious one that needs enough attention is the lack of IS experience in the organisation history. Others are Management Support and User commitment, the absence of these could result into loss of user acceptance and IS failure eventually.

Project priorities: This is the only major project under consideration and crucial to the progress of the company.

Analysis of the current system (Rich Picture)


  • A property seeker can purchase or rent a property or do both.

Requirements for a solution

  • It is advisable to operate the system within a network other than independently so there is need to set up a network.
  • More PCs are required.
  • Users need to be given adequate training.


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